The small roadside village where she grew up was overlooked by a dark conical hill covered in scrub. It was always there whenever she stepped out of the house, leaning over the houses and yards across the road, but she did not see it when she was a very small child and only became aware of it later when she learned to give meaning to habitual sights. She was told that she was never to go up there but was not told why, so she populated the hill with all the terrors she was learning to imagine. It was her aunt who told her she must never go up the hill, and also told stories about a snake that could swallow a child, and a tall man whose shadow flitted across the roofs of houses when the moon was full, and a disheveled old woman who roamed the road to the sea and sometimes took the form of a leopard who raided the village for a goat or a baby. Her aunt did not say so but the girl was sure that the snake and the tall man and the disheveled old woman all lived on the hill and came down from there to terrorize the world.
Behind the houses and the backyards were the fields and beyond those rose the hill. As she grew older it seemed that the hill loomed even larger over the village, especially at dusk, shouldering over them like a discontented spirit. She learned to avert her gaze if she had to go out of the house at night. In the deep silence of the night she heard soft hissing whispers creeping down and sometimes they came around and behind the house as well. Her aunt told her these were the invisibles which only women heard, but however sad and insistent their whispers she was not to open the door to them. Much later she knew that the boys went up the hill and came back safely, and they never spoke of a snake or a tall man or a disheveled old woman, and never mentioned whispers. They said that they went hunting on the hill, and if they caught anything they roasted it over a fire and ate it. They always came back empty-handed so she did not know if they were making fun of her.
The road past the village ran on to the coast in one direction and to the deep interior in the other. It was mostly used by people on foot, some of them carrying heavy loads, and sometimes by men on donkeys or on oxcarts. It was wide enough for the carts but uneven and bumpy. In the distance behind them the silhouette of mountains ran across the horizon. Their names were strange and made her think of danger.
She lived with her aunt and uncle and her brother and sister. Her brother was called Issa and her sister Zawadi. She was expected to rise at the same time as her aunt, who shook her awake and gave her a sharp little slap on her bottom to make her get up. Wake up, mischief. Her aunt’s name was Malaika but they all called her Mama. The girl’s first chore after she was up was to fetch the water while her aunt lit the braziers, which were cleaned and packed with charcoal from the night before. Water was not in short supply but it had to be fetched. There was a bucket and a ladle outside the bathroom door for use in there. There was another bucket by the sluice that led to the outside gutter, which was where they washed the pots and dishes, and where they poured away the water after washing clothes, but for her uncle’s bath and for making tea she had to fetch the water from the huge clay tank, covered and kept under an awning to stay cool. It had to be clean water for her uncle’s bath and for his tea, and the water in the buckets was only for dirty work. Sometimes the water made people ill, which was why she had to warm clean water for her uncle’s bath and for the tea.
The tank was high and she was small so she had to stand on an upturned crate to be able to reach the water, and when the level was low or if the water seller had not come to replenish the tank, she had to reach so far in that half her body was in the slippery tank. If she spoke while her head was in the tank her voice had a demonic sound, which made her feel enormous. She did that sometimes even when she was not fetching water, put her head into the tank and made gloating, groaning sounds as if she was huge. She ladled the water into two pans but only half-filled them because otherwise they were too heavy for her to carry. She took them one by one to the two braziers her aunt had started, then topped up the pans with repeated trips to the tank until the water in the pans was the right amount, one for her uncle’s bath and the other for the tea.
The first she knew of anything in the world was living with them, her aunt and uncle. The brother Issa and sister Zawadi were older than her, maybe five or six years older. They were not her brother and sister, of course, but she still thought of them like that even though they teased her and hurt her as part of their games. Sometimes they beat her very deliberately, not because she had done anything to provoke them but because they liked to do it and she could not stop them. They beat her whenever it was only the children in the house and no one was there to hear her cries, or if they were bored, which was often. They asked her to do things she did not like and when she cried or refused they slapped her and spat at her. There was not much to do after her chores but if she followed them when they went out to play with their friends or to steal fruit from the neighbors’ trees, they did not always like it nor did their friends. The girls called her dirty names to make the boys laugh and sometimes they chased her away. It was for different reasons but her brother and sister beat her or pinched her or stole her food, every day. She did not feel very sad that they beat her and pinched her and stole her food. It did not hurt very much and other things made her feel more sad, made her feel small and a stranger in this world. Other children were also beaten every day.
From a very young age she was required to do chores. She did not remember when it started, but she was always called to do something, sweeping or fetching water or running to the shop for her aunt. Later she washed clothes and chopped and peeled as required, and warmed the water for her uncle’s bath and the household’s tea. Other children in the village were required to do chores for their uncles and aunts too, in the house and in the fields. Her uncle and aunt did not have a field or even a garden, so all her chores were in the house or the backyard. Her aunt spoke to her sharply at times, but more often she was kind and told her stories. Some of these stories were terrifying, like the one about a ragged bloated man with long dirty fingernails who walked on the road at night, dragging an iron chain behind him, looking to capture a little girl and take her to his burrow underground. You can always hear him coming because of the chain dragging on the ground. Many of her aunt’s stories were about dirty old people who stole little girls. When she saw Issa or Zawadi mistreating the child she rebuked or even punished them. Treat her like your sister, the poor girl, she told them.
Her mother was dead, she knew that, but she did not know why her aunt and her uncle were the ones who took her in. One day when she was in her sixth year her aunt told her, “We took you in because you were orphaned and your father was sickening. Your mother and father lived further along the road and we knew them. Your poor mother was unlucky with her health and she died when you were very small, about two years old. Your father brought you to us and asked us to take you until he was better, but he did not become better and God took him away too. These things are in God’s hands. Since then you have been our burden.”
Her aunt told her this as she was oiling and plaiting her hair after washing it, which she did every week to keep away the lice. She was sitting between her aunt’s knees and could not see her face but her voice was gentle, even tender. After she was told this, she knew that they were not really her uncle and her aunt, and that her father was also dead. She did not remember her mother but it still made her sad to think of her. When she tried to imagine her she could only see one of the village women.
Her uncle did not speak to her very much, nor she to him. He frowned when she did so, even when it was only to deliver a message from her aunt. When he wanted her to come to him, he snapped his fingers or called out: You! His name was Makame. He was a big man, with a round face and a round nose and a large round stomach. He was satisfied when everything was as he wanted it. When he spoke sharply to one of his children, the house trembled and shook with his rage and everyone fell silent. She avoided his eyes because they were often hot and frightening in his glowering face. She knew he did not like her but she did not know what she had done to make him feel that way. His hands were large and his arm was as thick as her neck. When he slapped her on the back of her head she staggered and felt dizzy.
Her aunt had a habit of nodding several times when she wanted to say something firmly, and because her face was narrow and drawn and her nose was pointed, she looked as if she was pecking at something in the air when she did so. “Your uncle is a very strong man,” her aunt told her. “That’s why he is employed as a security guard at the serikali depot. He opens and closes the gates to keep the vagrants out. The government chose him. They are all afraid of him. They say, Makame has a fist like a club. If it was not for him they would behave like hooligans and steal things.”
From her earliest memory she slept on the floor just inside the entranceway to the house. When she opened the door in the morning she saw the hill, and even when the door was closed at night she knew it was there, looming over them all. The dogs barked in the night and mosquitoes whined around her face and insects rattled and screeched just the other side of the flimsy and cracked door. Then they fell silent when the whispers began to descend from the hill all the way to the back of the house. She kept her eyes tightly shut in case she saw discontented eyes peering at her through the cracks in the door panels.
It was a small house made of mud bricks and whitewashed inside and out. There were two small rooms divided by the entranceway and a back door that opened onto the yard. A cane fence ran around this, and out there were the washroom and kitchen. The other four slept in the larger of the two rooms, mother and daughter in one bed and father and son in the other. Sometimes the younger people slept in the smaller room, which was used during the day for a sitting room or as somewhere to store things or to eat or to receive neighbors when they called. The village was a long way into the country, so there was no running water, which was why she had to fetch the water for her uncle’s bath and for the tea from the huge clay tank the water seller filled up every time it was low. The water seller fetched the water from the village well a short distance away, then he went from house to house, pulling his cart himself, and filled up the tanks of the people who paid him. Many people went to the well themselves or sent a child but her aunt and uncle could afford to pay.
One day she was in the yard helping her aunt with the washing when they heard someone calling out from the front door. Go and see who it is, her aunt said. At the door she found a man dressed in a long-sleeved white shirt and khaki trousers and thick-soled soft-leather shoes. He stood on the step, just up from the road, holding a canvas bag in his right hand. He was obviously a man from town, from the coast.
“Karibu,” she said, speaking the polite word of welcome.
“Marahaba,” he said, smiling. Then after a moment he said, “Can I ask your name?”
“Afiya,” she said.
He smiled more widely and sighed at the same time. Then he went down on his haunches so their faces were level. “I am your brother,” he said. “I have been looking for you for so long. I did not know if you lived, or if Ma and Ba lived. Now I have found you, thank God. Are the people of the house inside?”
She nodded and went to call her aunt, who came out wiping her hands with her kanga. The man, now standing tall again, introduced himself by name. “I am Ilyas, her brother,” he said. “I went to our old home and found that my people were passed away. Neighbors told me my sister was here. I didn’t know.”
Her aunt seemed perturbed by what he had said for a moment, and perhaps also by his appearance. He was dressed like a government man. “Karibu. We did not know where you were. Please wait while Afiya goes to fetch her uncle,” she said. “Quick, go now.”
She ran to the depot and told her uncle that her aunt said he was to come and he asked what it was about. My brother has come, she said. From where? he asked, but she just ran on before him. When they reached the house, he was a little breathless but he was polite and smiling, which was not how he usually was at home. Her brother was in the small room, cramped and cluttered as usual, and her uncle joined him there, shaking hands and beaming with delight. “You are welcome, our brother. We thank God for keeping you safe and for leading you to our house so you can meet your sister. Your father told us that you were lost. We did not know what to do to find you. We have done our best to look after her. She is like one of ours now,” he said, left hand on heart while his right arm was extended wide in a gesture of welcome.
“I don’t know if you remember me, but I can assure you I am who I say I am,” her brother said.
“I can see the family resemblance,” her uncle said. “There is no need for assurances.”
When Afiya came back a few minutes later with two glasses of water on a tray, she found them deep in conversation. She heard her brother say, “Thank you for looking after her for so long. I cannot thank you enough but now that I’ve found her, I would like to take her to live with me.”
“We will be sorry to lose her,” her uncle said, his face shiny with dried sweat. “She is our own daughter now, and her living with us is an expense we gladly bear, but of course she must live with her brother. Blood is blood.”
They talked together for some time before they called for her to come in. Her brother gestured for her to sit while he explained that she was to come and live with him in the town. She was to gather her things and be ready to leave with him in a short while. She collected her little bundle and was ready within minutes. Her aunt watched her closely. Just like that, not even thank you, goodbye, she said reproachfully. Thank you, goodbye, Afiya said, ashamed of her own haste.
She did not even know she had a real brother. She could not believe he was here, that he had just walked in off the road and was waiting to take her away. He was so clean and beautiful, and he laughed so easily. He told her afterward that he was angry with her uncle and aunt but he did not show it because it would have seemed that he was being ungrateful when they had taken her in although she was not a relative. They had taken her in, that was not nothing. He gave them some money as a gift for their kindness but he did not need to, because she was in filthy rags when he found her as if she was their slave. “If anything they should have paid you for having made you work for them like that for so long,” he said. It did not feel like that to her at the time, only afterward, after she started living with him.
That same morning he found her, he took her away with him on the donkey cart to Karim’s shop. She had never traveled on a donkey cart before. They waited at the shop for a lift back and then the next day they went on another donkey cart where she sat among baskets of mangoes and cassava and sacks of grain while her brother shared the driver’s bench. He took her to the small town on the coast where he lived. In the town, he rented a downstairs room in a family home, and when they arrived he took her upstairs to meet the people who lived up there. The mother and her teenaged daughters were in and they said she was to come upstairs whenever she wished. During the time Afiya lived with her brother she slept on a bed for the first time in her life. She had her bed at one end of the room under her own mosquito net and he had his at the other. There was a table in the middle of the room where every afternoon he made her do lessons when he came back from work.
One morning, a few days after he brought her to the town, he took her to the government hospital near the seashore. She had never seen the sea. A man in a white coat scratched her arm and then asked her to urinate in a small pot. Ilyas explained the scratching was to prevent her from falling ill with fever and the urine was to test if she had bilharzia. It’s German medicine, he said.
When Ilyas went to work in the morning, she went upstairs with the family and they made room for her without any effort. They asked questions about her and she told them what little there was to tell. She helped in the kitchen because that was work she knew how to do or sat with the sisters while they talked and sewed, and sometimes they sent her on errands to the shop down the street. Their names were Jamila and Saada and they became her friends from the start. Later, she had her meal with them when their father came home. She was told to call their father Uncle Omari, which made her feel she was part of the family. In the afternoon, after her brother came back from work and had a wash, she took his lunch to him downstairs and sat with him while he ate.
“You must learn to read and write,” he said. She had not seen anyone read or write although she knew what writing was because it was on the tins and boxes in the village shop, and she had seen a book on a shelf above the shopkeeper’s stool. The shopkeeper told her it was a holy book you should not touch without first washing yourself as if you were preparing for prayer. She did not think she would be able to learn a book that holy but her brother laughed at her and made her sit beside him while he wrote out the letters and made her say them after him. Later she practiced writing the letters herself.
One afternoon, when the people upstairs were out, he took her with him as he went to call on one of his friends. His name was Khalifa, and Ilyas said this was his best friend in the town. They teased each other and laughed and then after a while her brother said they would continue with their walk but he promised to bring her to visit again. Most mornings she went upstairs and sat with Jamila and Saada while they cooked and talked and sewed, and sometimes in the evenings when Ilyas went to the café or to be with his friends, she went upstairs and practiced reading and writing her letters under the sisters’ admiring eyes. Neither of them could read, nor could their mother.
Her brother did not always go out, though, and some evenings he stayed in and taught her card games or songs or talked to her about his experiences. He told her: “I ran away from home while Ma was pregnant with you. I don’t know if I really meant to run away. I don’t think I did. I was only eleven. Our Ma and Ba were very poor. Everyone was poor. I don’t know how they lived, how they survived. Ba had sugar and was unwell and could not work. Perhaps the neighbors helped them. I know my clothes were rags and I was always hungry. Ma lost two of my younger sisters after they were born. I expect it was malaria but I was only a child and I would not have known about things like that at the time. I remember when they both came. After a few months they fell ill and cried for days before they passed away. Some nights I could not sleep because I was so hungry and because Ba was groaning so loudly. His legs were swollen and smelled bad, like meat that was rotting. It was not his fault, that was the sugar. Don’t cry, I can see your eyes are getting wet. I am not saying this to be unkind but to explain to you that perhaps these were the things that made me want to run away.
“I don’t think I really meant to run away but once I was on the road I just kept walking. No one took very much notice of me. When I was hungry I begged for food or stole some fruit, and at night I always found somewhere to creep into and sleep. Some of the time I was very frightened but at other times I forgot myself and just looked at what was happening all around. After several days I arrived in a big town on the coast, this town. I saw soldiers marching through the streets, music playing, heavy boots thudding on the road and a crowd of young people marching alongside, pretending to be soldiers too. I joined them, thrilled by the display of the uniforms and the march and the band. The march ended at the train station and I stood there to watch the big iron coaches as large as houses. The engine was groaning and puffing smoke, just like it was alive. I had never seen a train before. A troop of askari stood on the platform waiting to board the train, and I was loitering around them, just watching and listening. The Maji Maji fighting was still going on then. Do you know about that? I didn’t know about it then either. I’ll tell you about the Maji Maji later. When the train was ready, the askari began to board. A Shangaan askari pushed me on the train and held my wrist and laughed while I struggled but he did not let me go. He told me I was to be his gun boy, to carry his gun for him when they marched. You will like it, he said. He took me on the train until the end of the line, or as far as they had built the line at that time, and then we marched for several days all the way to the mountain town.
“When we arrived there we were made to wait in a yard for a while. I think the Shangaan thought I was no longer trying to escape him because he was not even holding my wrist. Perhaps he thought there was nowhere for me to run. I saw an Indian man standing over some cargo, giving instructions to the porters and making a note on a piece of board. I ran to him and told him that the askari had stolen me from my home. The Indian man told me, go away, you filthy little thief! I must have looked very dirty. My clothes were nothing but rags, shorts made of sacking and a torn old shirt I did not bother to wash anymore. I told the Indian man, my name is Ilyas and that big Shangaan askari standing there staring at us stole me from my home. The Indian man looked away at first but then he asked me to repeat my name. He made me say it twice more then he smiled and said it too. Ilyas. He nodded and took me by the hand”—Ilyas took Afiya’s hand as he said this, smiling like the Indian man and getting to his feet—“walking toward the German officer in his white uniform who was also there in the yard. He was the chief of the askari and was busy with his troops. He had hair the color of sand and his eyebrows were the same. That was the first German I stood close to and that is what I saw. He frowned at me and said something to the Indian man who said I was free to go. I said I had nowhere to go and when the chief of the askari heard this he frowned again and called for another German man.”
They sat down again, Afiya still smiling and her eyes rapt with pleasure at the story. Ilyas put on a scowling expression and continued.
“This other German was not an officer in a beautiful white uniform but a rough-looking man who was directing workers loading cargo, which the Indian man was counting off. When the officer finished speaking to him he summoned me to him and said sharply, What’s your story? I told him, my name is Ilyas and an askari stole me from my home. He repeated my name and smiled. Ilyas, he said, that’s a nice name. Wait here until I finish. I did not, but followed him in case the Shangaan askari came back for me. The man worked on a coffee farm a little way up the mountain. It belonged to another German. He took me back to the farm with him and gave me work in the animal pen. They had several donkeys and a horse in her own stable. Yes, it was a she-horse, very large and scary to a little boy. It was a new farm and there was a lot of work to do. That was why the rough German took me there, because they needed people to work.
“The farmer saw me in the pen clearing donkey dung or something like that, I can’t remember exactly. He asked the man who had brought me from the station who I was. When he found out that I was stolen by an askari he was angry. We don’t have to behave like savages, he said. That is not what we have come here to do. I know that was what he said because he told me later. He was pleased with what he did and liked to talk about it to me and to other people. He said I was too young to work, that I should first go to school. The Germans did not come here to make slaves, he said. Then I was allowed to attend church school, which was for converts. I stayed there on the farm for many years.”
“Was I born then?” Afiya asked.
“Oh, yes, you must have been born a few months after I ran away,” Ilyas said. “I was on the farm for nine years so that means you must be about ten years old. I really liked living there. I worked on the farm and went to school and learned to read and write and to sing and speak German.”
He broke off and sang some verses of what must have been a German song. She thought his voice was beautiful and got to her feet to applaud him when he stopped. He was grinning with pleasure. He loved to sing.
“One day, not so long ago,” he continued, “the farmer called me over for a talk. He was like a father to me, that man. He looked after all the workers, and if anyone fell ill he sent him to the mission clinic for medicine. He asked me if I wanted to stay on at the farm. He said I now had too many talents for a farm laborer and was I not curious to move back to the coast where there were many more opportunities? He gave me a letter to take to a relative of his here in this town who has a sisal factory. In the letter he wrote that I was trustworthy and respectful, and could read and write in German. He read the letter to me before he sealed it. That is why I have a job as a clerk in a German sisal factory, and that is why you will learn to read and write too, so that one day you will know about the world and learn how to look after yourself.”
“Yes,” Afiya said, not ready to think about the future just yet. “Did the farmer have sandy hair like the other German in the white uniform?”
“No, he didn’t,” Ilyas said. “He had dark hair. He was slim and deliberate, never shouting at or abusing his workers. He looked like a . . . a schüler, a learned man, a restrained man.”
Afiya gave the description of the farmer a moment’s thought and then asked, “Did our Ba have dark hair?”
“Eh, probably. It was all gray when I left but I suppose it would have been dark earlier, when he was younger,” Ilyas said.
“Did your farmer look like our Ba?” Afiya asked.
Ilyas burst into laughter. “No, he looked like a German,” he said. “Our Ba . . .” Ilyas stopped and shook his head and said no more for a moment. “Our Ba was unwell,” he said.
From Afterlives © 2020 Abdulrazak Gurnah. By arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved.